Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.13


Rosalind Thomas, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Pp. 208. ISBN-0-521-37346-8.


Reviewed by Carol Thomas, University of Washington.

Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece precisely achieves the intended purpose of the series for which it was fashioned. Key Themes in Ancient History "aims to provide readable, informed and original studies of various basic topics, designed in the first instance for students and teachers of classics and ancient history." Rosalind Thomas explores the roles and interactions of writing and oral communication in eight readable chapters, providing both a broadly informed overview of basic issues and sensible insights of her own.

T. is well qualified for the task. Building on the foundations of her 1989 study, Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens, in which the interplay between written and oral communication is carefully documented through family and polis traditions, she has extended the breadth and focus of her view. After an introductory chapter that provides a balanced account of the state of the field, the author turns to the relationship between the two forms of communication. She argues persuasively that societies are not purely literate or oral but rather, since oral communication and writing are not incompatible, the two overlap. Thus, to understand the nature of a particular culture, it is necessary to examine the interaction of these two techniques with one another and with the several basic aspects of that culture.

A third chapter turns to oral poetry and orality, following in the footprints of M. Parry and A. Lord with a discussion of oral poetry, especially the Homeric epics. Boldly, but not rashly, T. ventures a resolution to the issue of creative genius within a fixed tradition: composition by means of inherited formulas does not preclude, she argues, some memorization, private reflection and individual style. Nor would the existence of a written text stifle oral composition and performance. With Harris and Havelock, T. stresses the continuity of oral communication and reliance on memory well into the fourth century. Even though the alphabet came into use in Greece in the eighth century (on this issue, T. reasons that the finds "cling obstinately to the eighth century", 53), writing did not replace oral communication. Rather, as chapter four explores, writing was grafted onto customs already present as, for example, added to visual memorials in order to impart even greater permanence. Not until the fourth century did the Athenians, among whom writing was more prevalent than in many states, become "document-minded." Even so, an archival mentality did not develop, for reasons discussed in the fifth chapter. The on-going importance of oral performance, the subject of Chapter 6, is further evidence of the continuing interaction between the two techniques.

The penultimate chapter returns to the subject of the polis. Having suggested earlier that the initial impact of writing may have been associated largely with needs of the developing polis (69), T. now treats the relationship of writing to power. Rejecting the position that writing exercises the same influences in every society, she considers its role in various poleis. While there is some correlation between the number of public documents and democratic constitutions, she argues that writing was not a defining characteristic of the Greek polis generally (130). Nor did it define the status of its individual members: although literacy was related to social status, it did not create a particular status (153 f.).

An epilogue leads the reader into the Roman world, demonstrating a main premise of the book that all literate or oral societies are not the same. A strong feature of the book is especially clear in these pages: it sets out areas needing further study, a habit pronounced in the work of Moses Finley. Like Finley too, T. emphasizes the "otherness" of antiquity. In the question of literacy/orality, it is exceedingly difficult for us to appreciate the functions of both techniques, for to us literate is good, civilized while oral is illiterate and thus uncivilized. T.'s account effaces this stigma.

This alone is a considerable accomplishment but there is more to admire. The whole is dotted with valuable specific information and insights. The presentation is fluid and fluent, noticeably more graceful than Oral Tradition and Written Record. The useful habit of summing up at the end of sections continues from the earlier study. Documentation, too, is full and valuable in textual notes, bibliography and a five-page bibliographic essay. The breadth of her own reading is clearly attested in illustrations of specific points (Eskimo poetry is not formulaic, 43; modern jazz composition is a useful analogy for oral composition, 49; Greece is regularly compared with other cultures, especially the European Medieval period).

Such a broad approach cannot provide a detailed discussion of every subject. Some readers will be troubled by the condensed treatment of oral tradition. Foley's bibliographic discussion on that subject alone, The Theory of Oral Composition (Indiana, 1988), is nearly the length of Thomas' account of the full range of topics. References, too, are abbreviated in many cases. Herodotus' status as a transitional figure from oral tradition to written account has become a popular subject, treated in a number of recent discussions (J. Gould [1988], D. Lateiner [1989], C. Thomas [1988]). But readers who would criticize on the grounds of incompleteness should remember the purpose of the series: its volumes are intended to introduce the scope and dimensions of an issue.

Of course, there are issues on which some will take issue with the author for the very topic of orality and literacy is much disputed. Some classicists will be ever wedded to their "textual bias" in approaching Classical Greece (W. Ong, 1982; E. Havelock, 1986). However, even among those more willing to regard Greek culture as an interplay of both literate and oral techniques, a difference of opinion may arise over the "relativist concept of literacy". We can agree with T. that neither oral traditions nor written records are uniformly similar in all cultures; case studies have shown that different uses and forms of oral and written communication are created by the specific social institutions in which they are used. Some of us will disagree with T. in believing that general tendencies result from a reliance on one or the other means of communication. Non-literate remembrance, for instance, requires patterning of some sort supported by such aids as narrative, or metrical form, or formulaic language; written accounts do not absolutely depend on such conventions. On the other hand, writing, by permitting collection and comparison over long periods of time, exposes inconsistencies that are tolerated by the fleeting present of spoken words.

With regard to specific matters Thomas' explanation of the predominance of procedure in early laws is troubling. It was predominant, she suggests, because writing recorded, fixed and perhaps dignified rules that were not generally accepted by the community (68). The reverse might well be a better case: an insistence on procedure was central to the formation of Greek law from its definition in the Homeric epics through the fifth century, largely because, as T. argues in general terms, writing was grafted onto existing customs. Customary, non-written law, tends to revolve around procedure and action not concepts and principles. T. demonstration of the bond between action and oral communication in her treatment of "Orality, performance and memorial" would be useful here.

But it is a singular accomplishment to have the topic defined as a Key Theme in Ancient History and discussed in a coherent, sensible manner. Eric Havelock would smile!